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Jul 18, 2014

MH17: why a commercial jet was flying over a war zone

The Russian separatists who shot down MH17 allegedly thought it was a military target -- though it was easily distinguishable as a commercial plane.

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The truth about the destruction of MH17 has come out far faster than the baffling and totally unrelated mystery of the disappearance of MH370 on March 8. But a crucial question remains: what was the commercial jet doing flying over a war zone in the first place?

The jet and its 298 souls were targeted, tracked and destroyed by a modern warfare surface-to-air missile (SAM) launched by Russian separatists controlling the part of the eastern Ukraine, where it crashed to earth.

If as intelligence sources have unambiguously suggested this SAM was a Russian-made BUK, it requires a very deliberate drill by a launch squad that chose the target, locked onto it, and pressed the fire button the moment the control system had computed the intercept trajectory and loaded it into the already primed missile.

If the now widely circulated recording of conversations by separatists involved in the launch are the real thing, the jet was shot down in the belief that it was a military target.

As one voice is heard saying, after the bodies of adults and children are found after the kill, “they must have been carrying spies ….. What are they doing flying here? …. This is a fucking war.”

But some airlines had been routinely flying over Ukrainian airspace since the war started.

Visibility is shown in the newscasts as being more than adequate for a normal sighted adult to have recognized MH17 for what it was — a commercial flight. At 33,000 feet the shape and even livery of a large airliner is quite obvious, and the flight was quite obviously not military in its profile or other characteristics.

But with the attitude conveyed by the people in the alleged recording of the conversations after the missile hit, it is only by chance that the SAM-launching platoon didn’t bring down an even larger A380.

The destruction of MH17 raises exceptionally awkward questions for civil aviation authorities and air traffic control systems in general. Whatever logic was employed in deciding that it was safe to fly over a war zone at more than 32,000 feet, it was woefully ignorant of the capabilities of modern SAM systems, which in their heavier more capable forms are intended to destroy targets that may be supersonic and flying at much higher altitudes.

It all smacks of decision-making that favoured fuel-saving corridors over routes that avoided the risks of conflicts in which contemporary weapons technology is being used.

Ben Sandilands — Editor of Plane Talking

Ben Sandilands

Editor of Plane Talking

Ben Sandilands has reported and analysed the mechanical mobility of humanity since late 1960 - the end of the age of great scheduled ocean liners and coastal steamers and the start of the jet age. He’s worked in newspapers, radio and TV in a wide range of roles as a journalist at home and abroad for 56 years, the last 18 freelance.

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45 thoughts on “MH17: why a commercial jet was flying over a war zone

  1. Limited News

    Zero Hedge casts a critical eye over the “evidence”


    Normally lining up with the US over a dispute with Russia comes at zero political cost, but starting WWIII on the basis of a YouTube video is pretty crap.

  2. Iskandar

    I sent the following letter to Bill Shorten this morning. Worth posting here also:

    A terrible tragedy happened this morning with the shooting down of MH17 over the war zone of eastern Ukraine. You made some comments on commercial TV to the effect that it was shot down by “pro-Russian terrorists”. This may or may not prove to be the case but I was shocked that you would use the language of the demented oligarch and US-installed and propped-up puppet president of Ukraine Poroshenko. The truer definition of his opponents in the east should be “anti-Kiev separatists” who want nothing to do with his regime which has stated its intent of “ethnically cleansing” or worse the Russian-speaking population of the region.

    Are you truly not aware that the civil war in Ukraine was sparked off by US interference in Ukraine’s internal affairs since the beginning of this year? Are you not aware that the likes of Victoria Nuland, John McCain and Joe Biden were in Kiev addressing the Maidan rallies before the movement was high-jacked by well-organised paramilitary thugs of neo-fascist persuasion, resulting in the putsch which toppled the corrupt but nevertheless legal government?

    Are you further not aware of the fact that when a war starts events spiral out of control, creating a fog in which super-hyped young men with powerful weapons make mistakes, and civilians who blunder into a war zone become victims? The MH17 incident I suggest was the result of a long chain of events, and what are needed now are cooler heads in a highly-charged atmosphere, to see the bigger picture and step back from the brink. I hope you are capable of this but from your comments above I am not so sure.

    I offer one other piece of “intelligence” for your consideration. At the D-Day commemoration in Normandy, Tony Abbott was spotted in news footage having a quiet chat with the above-mentioned Poroshenko. My suspicious mind suspected they were discussing the likelihood of a 911-type event to stir up some jingoistic militancy for their mutual political advantage. I even made a comment in this regard to Crikey at the time. Imagine me waking this morning to find that suspicion coming to pass.

    So please Bill Shorten, I am an ALP supporter (and member), and I ask you to see the bigger picture, and differentiate yourself and our party from the jingoistic rantings that we can now expect from the conservative side.

  3. Tracey R

    “Visibility is shown in the newscasts as being more than adequate for a normal sighted adult to have recognized MH17 for what it was — a commercial flight. At 33,000 feet the shape and even livery of a large airliner is quite obvious, and the flight was quite obviously not military in its profile or other characteristics.”

    No. Visual identification is not normally used, this is because the aircraft target is initially too far away: Missiles are not launched when the aircraft is overhead, but before it is above the radar. This is standard tactical doctrine for the reasons of shortening flight missile flight time (which is limited), easing intercept geometry and shooting down the aircraft before it can damage you.

    The missile radar operator procedure is that the tracking radar will acquire the aircraft at long range. At 30,000 ft, 100km range is easily possible with a modern radar. A firing solution will be generated and the missile launched and guided by a separate radar sub-system.

    The whole event may also be compounded by the fact that they thought they were shooting down an Antonov transport, which would look broadly similar visually.

    The Antonov transport might also fly at higher altitudes to avoid man portable missiles, which is common tactical doctrine. It would probably not follow a commercial flight track, though.

    The radar might have had the capability to interrogate the transponder on commercial flights as part of its identification friend or foe (IFF) system.

    In the fog of war the mistake is easy to make. The USS Vincenes shot down Iran Air Flight 655 in 1988 at a range of 15-20km. The radar systems on the USS Vincenes would probably have been better that the Russian system. The Vincenes felt directly threatened, following the shooting of the USS Stark, which made a quick firing decision imperative, though.

    This is the sort of tragic mistake that happens in a war.

  4. Limited News


    Assuming this is a video of the crash, it seems likely the plane exploded on the ground not in the air. Note the absence of smoke and fire prior to impact. Electronic hijack is plausible ie remotely flown into the ground. If US intelligence is in contradiction of the facts, the US intelligence is in on it.

  5. j.oneill

    So much emotion, so few facts. What Nomad calls Abbott’s “robust” response is in fact a rush to judgment on an entirely inappropriate scale. Abbott’s initial caution rapidly changed and the likely reason is that he received the word from Washington: blame Russia and to hell with the evidence.

    Some further facts have emerged. It is likely that the plane was shot down with a missile of a type not in the possession of the so-called “rebels”, as acknowledged by a Ukrainian military spokesman.

    The missile in question is in Russian and Ukrainian possession.

    A recording released by the Ukrainians purporting to be a conversation about the disaster was shown to have been recorded the day before. When someone starts faking evidence the smell of the rate gets stronger.

    An Ukrainian military unit that operates surface to air missiles was in the area from whence the missile was fired having arrived there on Wednesday.

    The rest is manufactured hysteria, cynically using the tragedy and the grief of Australians and others to further demonise Russia in general and Putin in particular. As Westral notes, there was no comparable outrage when the USS Vincennes shot down an Iranian civilian airline with almost the same number of deaths as MH17. The Australian government of the day was notably restrained.

    The Israeli army has launched another illegal war and killed hundreds of civilians including children. Again, there is a stunning silence from Abbott and Bishop about this ongoing outrage.

    I return to the point I made in my first post: cui bono? I have yet to see a single convincing reason why Russia would do such a deed knowing the terrible downside for them. I can however think of many reasons why the US and NATO backed neo-Nazi government in Kiev would want to stage such an incident. Operation Gladio provides one such template and there are others.

    Would it not be prudent to use our energies to ensure that there is a fair and independent investigation before the world blunders into yet another conflagration?

  6. Douglas Ross Robbins

    Ben Sandilands’ article (see above) asked the unanswered and most cogent question to date as regards this tragic and dreadful event:

    MH17: why a commercial jet was flying over a war zone?

    I too have asked the same question and continue to do so.

    Aircraft engaged in regular public transport operations all over the world are daily required to deviate from their otherwise optimum tracks around all manner of activities not conducive to their otherwise safe operation. The following are just a few examples:
    * diversion around Prohibited Areas so declared to protect all parties from activities such as air-to-air combat practice, air-to-ground bombing & gunnery practice, military gunnery practice both over land and sea, security sensitive communication bases, rocket launch and retrieval ranges
    *areas of known severe weather e.g. cyclones and hurricanes, areas of extensive thunderstorms and associated hazardous weather
    *areas of known active volcanic activity
    *areas of known warfare
    Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran have all been areas of known warfare activity and therefore “no-go” zones for all aircraft not engaged in the warfare or in support of it.

    The question therefore remains, and to this point in time, remains unanswered.

    I will also add that having been engaged in the aviation industry for many years let me assure the sceptics that, given the right conditions of light and visiblity, it is by no means impossible to identify, by both aircraft type (size, contrail etc) and markings/colour, jet aircraft at their lower cruising flight levels. With a simple pair of binoculars it is even more so.

  7. j.oneill

    More evidence is emerging that needs to be evaluated. There are reports that a Spanish air traffic controller working in Kiev saw two fighter jets accompanying MH17 until shortly before it disappeared from radar. He has tweeted about this, and also that the air traffic records were immediately confiscated by Ukrainian security Police.

    According to the air traffic controller those records would also show that MH17 was diverted in its flight path so that it flew over the Donetsk region. All of this requires verification. One logical source for that verification would be Russian air defence systems that were operational on the Ukraine-Russia border.

    Those systems would show, inter alia, the type of missile fired, when the missile’s radar locked onto MH17, where exactly it was fired from and much else. All sophisticated air defence systems have this capability including that of the Americans. American intelligence has surely advised Obama of this fact. Even Abbott should have been similarly advised by the Australian intelligence agencies.

    The obvious point is that when Putin promises co-operation, as he has reportedly done overnight in a conversation with Abbott, then that co-operation should include the release of Russian intelligence data from their border security. If we don’t ask for it, that opens up one negative inference, and if the Russians refuse, that opens another.

    In the meantime we should avoid jumping to the stupid and ill-informed conclusions that characterise political comment thus far, and sadly, media comment as well.

  8. j.oneill

    In my previous post I raised the point that the Russians should be asked for their intelligence data. On Monday (yesterday) the Russians did precisely that. General Kartopolov told a media conference, complete with maps, photos, satellite images etc, that a Ukrainian SU-25 fighter was flying at the same altitude only 3-5km from MH17. General K also said showed satellite images of a Ukrainian BUK missile unit in the Donetsk region on the same day as MH17 flew overhead.

    The Russian detection systems also showed that an American satellite was overhead at the precise time that MH17 was hit by a missile. He said that the Americans should release their satellite images as Russia had done.

    The Russian data also show that MH17 was diverted by Kiev air traffic control from its scheduled route to take it over the Donetsk region, and at 2000 feet lower altitude than in its flight plan.

    The full video of General Kartopolov’s media interview can be easily seen on the web with a complete English translation.

    To the best of my knowledge no Australian media outlet, broadcast or print, has disclosed the fact of the Russian defence ministry’s release of hard data. And neither have the Americans released the data they must have. We might draw some negative inferences from that silence, and the continued propaganda barrage from Abbott et al when one could reasonably assume that the Australian defence intelligence agencies have told him what I have just set out above.

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